Dizziness is the feeling of being lightheaded, woozy, or unbalanced. It affects the sensory organs, specifically eyes and ears. It can cause fainting. Dizziness is not a disease but a symptom of other disorders.
Vertigo and disequilibrium may cause a feeling of dizziness, but those two terms describe different symptoms. Vertigo is characterized by a feeling of spinning. Disequilibrium is a loss of balance or equilibrium. True dizziness is the feeling of lightheadedness or nearly fainting.
Dizziness is common. The underlying cause of dizziness is usually not serious. Occasional dizziness is nothing to worry about.
Seek medical attention if you have recurring bouts of dizziness with no apparent cause. Also seek immediate help if you experience sudden dizziness along with a head injury, a headache, neck ache, blurred vision, hearing loss, a loss of motor ability, a loss of consciousness, or chest pain. These could indicate serious issues.
Dizziness is often a result of vertigo. It can also be caused by a problem in the inner ear, where balance is regulated. The most common cause of vertigo and vertigo-related dizziness is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This causes short-term dizziness when a person changes positions quickly—for instance, when sitting up in bed.
Dizziness and vertigo can also be caused by Meniere’s disease (which causes fluid buildup in the ear), migraine, or acoustic neuroma, a benign growth on the nerve connecting the inner ear to the brain. Very rarely, vertigo could be caused by a stroke, brain hemorrhage, multiple sclerosis, or another neurological disorder.
Other causes of dizziness include:
- sudden drop in blood pressure, as may occur upon standing suddenly
- heart muscle disease
- decrease in blood volume
- neurological conditions
- side effect from medications
- anxiety disorders
- anemia (low iron)
- hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- ear infection
- heat stroke
- excessive exercise
- motion sickness
Symptoms of dizziness include:
- vertigo (spinning motion)
- loss of balance
- sensation of floating or swimming
Sometimes dizziness is accompanied by clamminess, nausea, vomiting, paleness, or losing consciousness.
A doctor can diagnose dizziness and its underlying cause by performing a physical examination. He or she will ask questions about a patient’s dizziness, including when it strikes, in what positions, where the symptoms are located, and the severity.
The doctor may also test a patient’s eyes and ears, observe the patient’s posture, and perform tests to check balance. Depending on the suspected cause, a CT scan or MRI might be recommended.
In some cases, no cause is determined.
Treatment for dizziness focuses on the underlying cause. Often, at-home treatments, lifestyle changes, and medication can control the cause of dizziness.
To treat BBPV, a procedure can be performed to reposition the head. For inner-ear issues, medications and at-home exercises can help manage balance. Meniere’s disease is treated with diet and occasionally injections or ear surgery. Migraines are treated with medications and lifestyle changes, such as learning to identify and avoid migraine triggers. Medication can help with pain and nausea. Medication is often used for anxiety disorders. Drinking plenty of fluids can help when dizziness is caused by excessive exercise, heat, or dehydration.
Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and any substances that affect balance or trigger dizziness should be avoided.
Most cases of dizziness clear up on their own when the underlying cause is treated. In rare cases, dizziness can be a sign of a more serious health problem.
Dizziness can cause serious complications when it causes fainting or a loss of balance. This can be especially dangerous when a person is driving or operating heavy machinery. Use caution if you feel a dizziness episode coming. If you become dizzy, stop driving immediately or find a safe place to steady yourself until it passes.
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Published on Sep 23, 2013
Medically reviewed on Sep 23, 2013 by George Krucik, MD